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WA Rep. Lekanoff: Banning use of Native mascots is ‘how we honor the first Americans’

People march to TCF Bank Stadium to protest against the mascot for the Washington Redskins before the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 2, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Opponents of the Redskins name believe it's a slur that mocks Native American culture and they want the team to change it. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

A bill (HB 1356) in the state Legislature would ban the use of Native American mascots, logos, and team names at public schools in Washington state.

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“This is how we honor the first Americans,” Rep. Debra Lekanoff said, explaining to a House committee why it’s so important to approve her bill.

Lekanoff is the only current Native American member of the state Legislature.

“The regalia that Native Americans wear are intertwined within their laws. It is a generational, cultural teaching that runs through our bloodlines. Our regalia is the very essence of who we are,” she said.

“When we see others in a mascot form using our regalia, using our deer hide, using the salmon skin, using the feathers, using them in mockery, this is not a way in which we believe we’re being honored as the first Washingtonians and the first Americans of this great country,” she continued.

The ban does not apply to school names, and wouldn’t apply to schools on tribal lands or that have enrollment boundaries that include tribal land. It also doesn’t apply to schools and counties that have a reservation in them, but those schools would have to get the approval of the residing tribe in order to use the names.

“Imagine a small Native girl, imagine me, sitting on the bleachers, seeing a mascot at a sports game being tackled, bullied, made fun of in a competitive spirit,” Lekanoff said. “Does that child — do I — feel as if my identity is being treated as an equal? Do I see myself as an equal to my peers as that little girl? Allowing these mascots to exist gives a way to non-Natives wearing the regalia and face paint to impersonate these mascots, which is very disrespectful to anyone’s culture.”

Bill Kallappa, education liaison for the Nisqually tribe, and a member of the Washington State Board of Education, told the committee this move is long overdue.

“The state Board of Education has put out a couple resolutions — one in 1993, and one again in 2012 — so … the state board has supported this for a very long time, and we continue to do so,” he said.

“The piece for me in this bill is the consultation piece that’s so important, to consult with tribes, and at least consult with your local tribes on these mascot names so we can finally get these names put behind us,” Kallappa said. “Please get this bill passed so we can put mascots in our past.”

Washington students speak out

It was the passionate comments of local Native American students that captured much of the attention during the hearing.

“In the center of my high school’s office sits a glass case, caging two presumably Indian mascots, dressed in full regalia, symbolic of the defeated and extinct Native American, akin to animals in a zoo,” one student said. “I was that little girl that Rep. Lekanoff spoke of. It makes it extremely difficult to validate my own identity when I am constantly being shown images of what I should look like or how I should act.”

“No student … or group of students should have to carry the burden of representing an entire culture on their backs because the system can not accurately and respectfully educate students for them,” the student added. “The picture we paint of these mascots is not of a real human, group of humans, or culture, it is a selection of preconceived notions and ideas that must be set straight. So I plead the Legislature to vote yes on House Bill 1356 to protect me and all other young, Indigenous people like me whose educational systems have failed to listen.”

The committee also heard from students who were not Native American.

“I have heard stories growing up about how my ancestors were dehumanized just because of their religions, and I don’t think that’s right,” a student said. “And that’s essentially the same thing that’s been happening with using Native American mascots.”

“I’ve spent years watching professional sports. Some teams have had names that have appeared racist or disrespectful to others,” another student said. “This past year, the Washington Football Team officially changed their name, so did the Cleveland baseball team. If these professional teams can change their names, then our state’s schools can as well.”

“One of my favorite quotes from Harry Potter is: ‘We all face the choice between what is right and what is easy,'” a third student shared. “It’s easy to not want to change a mascot because you grew up with it, because it has sentimental value to you even if it’s disrespectful. It’s easy to decide not to pick out a new team name because it’ll cost a bit of money to get jerseys and yearbooks. It is right to change your name or mascot to something that’s not offensive, despite the cost or the memories. It is right to encourage connections between the Native American community and schools. It is right to honor everyone as people, not in a mocking way, so it is right to pass this bill.”

For the most part, KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott reports that comments were all in support of the bill.

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Lekanoff said the decision of the Washington Football Team to abandon its Native American name and the recent protests were what prompted her to bring this forward now. But Rep. Joel McEntire had questions, pointing to a 2016 poll specific to the NFL team in Washington, D.C., in which he said many Native Americans indicated they were not bothered by the team’s name.

“They were not offended by them retaining their name,” he said. “Obviously, there must be some disagreement in the Native American community about whether sports teams retaining these names do honor or dishonor to Natives. What do you say to those of Native descent who might disagree and are completely fine with having Native American mascots or names for their sports teams?”

“The poll back in the day was during a different time,” Rep. Lekanoff replied. “I think right now, today, we have seen Washington state rise in equity and diversity, rise in the respect of color, rise and be honored in a way that it should.”

McEntire requested a poll to be conducted with tribes of Native descent, and said he wants to know what the “snapshot is of the time.”

“Representative McEntire: I think … [after] 150 years of being treated in the way that we’ve done, I think this is a good bill. I think it’s time for us to make that change,” Lekanoff said. “If you want to know whether or not all Native Americans, every one of them in Washington state, support this in order for you to support this bill, we can happily try to find something for you.”

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Lekanoff also said she knows some school districts think they are actually honoring Native Americans with these names and mascots.

“We hear language, sports language, being called out. ‘Kill the Chieftains!’ ‘Kill the Braves!’ We do not feel honored in any way,” she said. “You think this is a piece of history that is the past. Not so long ago, in a small town on the west side, the cheerleaders held out this great big sign for the football team to run out. You know what was painted on that big poster at a small rural community? Trees with nooses hung from them that said, ‘Hang the Braves.’ This was not more than two years ago.”

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